The Washington Post

Ask Tom

Nov 17, 2010

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema answers your questions, listens to your suggestions and even entertains your complaints about Washington dining.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

ANNOUNCEMENTS DU JOUR: When you do something for as long as I have (can you believe we've been chatting 11 years now?), you need to mix things up now and then. 

 

So starting Dec. 1, I'll be inviting guest hosts on this discussion. They won't replace me -- and I'll continue to address your questions and comments -- but I think the occasional (hopefully regular) extra voices will add a bit of buzz to these weekly conversations.

 

My first guest is Roberto Donna, the veteran Washington chef who recently opened Galileo III downtown.

 

After that, who would you like to hear from (and why)? I'm open to all sorts of personalities connected to the world of food and dining.  My second guest will join me Dec. 15.  Feel free to send me names, either here or to asktom@washpost.com

 

Finally, I'm hosting Thanksgiving next week, so I have to beg off online duties Nov. 24.  (Hey, I've got eight people I need to impress, including my Mom!)  Our next chat will be Dec. 1.

 

 

Lots of questions this morning. Let's begin.

Morning Tom! Is your last postcard from London really 5 years old! How sad! (For your readers who want your advice....and for you, since it is a great city to visit!) If you really haven't been there in the past 5 years, I am wondering if your recommendations from your last postcard still hold true as some good eating, or if you have heard through the grapevine of some other great places to eat....OR if any of the other chatters have been recently and have some good recommendations. Really any price range (with, perhaps, the exception of Citronelle/Komi/The Inn type price points excluded) and any food type. We are just looking for interesting food for adventurous eaters that are passing through London for a couple of days and want some great meals! Thanks much!

Actually, I visited London in early July and wrote up the experience (well, four solid restaurant recommendations) for Travel July 25.

 

Chatters, care to add to my list?

Hi Tom, After reading about columbia room in your fall dining guide, I've snagged a reservation for this Saturday. Just wondering -- how long should we budget there (for the three drinks & snack). We're going early and want to head to dinner afterwards so I want to make sure I time it right. Thanks!

Drinks don't have to take long there. I went before dinner, too, and recall spending not much more than an hour at the bar-within-a-bar near the convention center.

Hi Tom, My husband and are planning to belatedly celebrate our anniversary at Komi soon. I had considered Plume as another option since we can only splurge like this once a year or so. Do you think we should go to Komi as planned or try to get a reservation at Plume? I'd love to do Minibar but I can't ever seem to get reservations there. Which one would you choose right now? We went to Proof for our actual anniversary and thought the food was good but the service was pretty bad. Thanks!

I'd stick with your original reservation.

 

Plume is beautiful but fairly conservative. Minibar doesn't say "romance," at least for this diner. And you've already celebrated at Proof.

 

In contrast, Komi is hushed and spare and luscious: a transporting experience.

I just want to give a big shout out to Ethiopic. Over the weekend, my husband and I went there for the first time after reading so many positive reviews. Our food was taking an especially long time, and they ended up bringing out my entree (the vegetarian sampler) first so that we could at least begin to eat. Even after my entree came out delayed, it was nearly another 30 minutes before my husband's entree was ready. The waitress apologized multiple times, and though we were somewhat annoyed, we were also famished and the food was amazing (best Ethiopian I've had in the city, hands down!). However, when our waitress stopped by our table to give us one last status update that my husband's entree should be out in 2 minutes, she also told us that because of the backup in the kitchen and subsequent delay, they weren't charging us for his entree. We definitely weren't expecting anything free - we did eventually get our food and fully enjoyed it when it arrived. But it was definitely above and beyond, and we tipped generously to show our gratitude. Bottom line - I highly recommend Ethiopic for the food AND commitment to service!

I agree: Ethiopic, despite a few service snafus, is the best Ethiopian playing in the city right now. And up until very recently, it was my favorite place to eat in the ever-expanding scene on H St. NE. (Stay tuned for my First Bite column on Dec. 8 in Food.)

Hi Tom! I adore you and your chats. I had an unfortunate incident Friday night at an out of town restaurant and wondered how you would have handled it. My girlfriend and I went to a fairly touristy but still nice Italian restaurant. Food was ok (my Caesar salad was probably the best thing of all of it) but ambiance was right for what we were looking for. The staff was overly attentive except on one issue: they kept calling my girlfriend "Sir". Now, to be fair, she does have short hair and she was wearing a long-sleeve button down shirt. But she certainly doesn't look like a man by any stretch. How would you have dealt with this? My girlfriend was pretty mortified by it and was kind of frozen in place. I didn't think it was worth further embarrassment to correct the staff or the manager in front of her. I ended up writing a letter to the manager today. I don't know if I'll hear back but I at least feel better that it was addressed.

Wow. Tricky situation.  Shades of  the old "Pat" sketches featuring Julia Sweeney on "Saturday Night Live."

 

Had I been you, I think I would have excused myself from the table after hearing your  significant other called "sir" a second time (figuring the first reference could have been a fluke). I would have sought out a manager, explained the problem and had him pass the news to the staff  attending your table.

 

Bottom line: One should never assume anything about a person. (The chubby woman may not be pregnant, so don't congraulate her. The old man at the table with the cute young thing may not be her grandfather, so don't try to link the two as relations. And so on. ) In this case, someone who isn't sure about someone's sex is best off sticking with generic forms of address ("you" works).

 

Poster,  if you hear from the restaurant, I'd love it if you could share the response to your letter.

 

 

Chatters, how would you handle this problem?

Just look up, bat your eyes, and say, "Do I really look like a sir to you?". Smile. Go back to your dinner.

Gloria Steinam wouldn't like that approach, but I get what you're saying.

 

Roberto Donna. Wow!! You're starting off big. Will you publish the angry posts from the old employees and creditors? I'm guessing they will come flooding in.

I think Mr. Donna can expect some heat, but I hope we can keep the discussion civilized.

Well, if the patron had short hair and was wearing a gentlemanly shirt, it's possible the waiter thought it might have been a pre-op or something and was trying to be nice.

That's possible, I guess. But I still think the best approach, if there's any doubt, is to keep generic.

Will Roberto be taking questions on how to evade Federal income taxes. commit Federal felonies and avoid serious jail time? I would like to nknow how to this as would many PG county pols and residents. You are the man Tom!

Um, no one has any questions on how he likes to serve white truffles?  It's the season, you know.

Cathal Armstrong

I'd be thrilled to have him on.

Speaking of Roberto Donna, how good is his new restaurant?

 Jury is still out (at least this one is).

One option would be to use her name while the waiter is around, ie. "Jenny, do we need to order anything else?" On the snarkier side, if I was the female in the situation I'd be tempted to wait until the waiter was in earshot and casually mention to my date that I recently found a new gynecologist.

But what if her name was Kim or Pat or Jo/Joe?

I don't understand what writing a letter will do for this poster who had the uncomfortable experience. It seems that the situation was unintentional; a mistake. Since that is the case, what could the restaurant possibly do about it at this point?

I don't think the poster was expecting to do anything but enlighten the restaurant.

It kind of reminds me of when I went to dinner with my sister while I had laryngitis. Because we are close, we were able to communicate through me gesticulating wildly. I pointed to the menu to order and....my drink was brought to me in a sippy cup, I was given an extra pile of napkins, and the waiter kept patting me on the shoulder to make sure I was okay. My sister finally burst out with, "she isn't mentally retarded - she just lost her voice." I thought the whole thing was hysterical. As for guest speakers, how about one of the owners of the various local restaurant chains - NRG, Great American, the group that owns Raskia and Oval Room etc?

Are you pulling my leg with that intro? (Hmmmm.)

 

I like your co-host suggestions. Thanks.

The Q&A on the web site shows you at 12.

Alas, it does. But I'm here! Now!

If that had happened to me, at the end of the meal, I would've asked the male server "Excuse me miss, but I think we're ready for the check!" (or called the female server "mister" if that was the case)

I prefer honey to vinegar myself.

Hi Tom, Saw in the Dining Guide you gave J&G 3 stars. The 2 times I have been with friends the service was terrible, the food was OK, and the wine list was embarrassing. Is that really your go to steak house and why?

I think I explained why it merited three stars in my mini-review in the fall guide.  (There are certainly good sources of steak out there, Bourbon Steak, Capital Grille and Prime Rib included.)

 

Curious when you lat dined at J& G? I've been there twice in past six months.

Since I know you've experienced the must-see-it-to-believe-it portion sizing at Carmine's, maybe you can help me with this. I enjoyed the restaurant and the atmosphere, but feel like I still haven't tried much off the menu. So, how many people do you really need to bring with you to have a shot of finishing an appetizer, salad, two entrees, and a dessert at Carmine's in Penn Quarter? Four? Six?

Ten?

I guess it all depends on how hungry (or gluttonous) the group is.

 

Nope - not pulling your leg. Happened at the Chevy's in Anne Arundel Mills in 2003.

Gotcha.

Hi Tom. Thanksgiving's coming up and I have guests coming (including a 5-year old). What would you serve for dinner the night before? I hope you have a good holiday with your family.

Something simple. And easy.

 

What about lentil soup and a big green salad with apple and nuts?  Or tacos that you can assemble yourself from bowls of chopped onions, cilantro, cheese, etc?  Or throw out plattes of cheese, sausage, a variety of breads and pickles and have everyone help themselves?

Why are people's "solution" to this mistake so indirect? Look the server in the eye and say, "I should be addressed as m'am." Done.

I should have thought of that!

 

Thanks for pointing out the oh so obvious.

Happy Wednesday Tom. Any idea where the esteemed pastry chef Josh Short has gone. Recently went into Buzz Bakery and was told that a new pastry chef was running the bakery. Thank you.

I should know this, but I don't. Maybe he or his press rep can clarify?

Tom, Am heading up to NYC today for an early morning meeting tomorrow. No plans for tonight -- please recommend a great place where I can sit at the bar and have dinner. I promise to go wherever you recommend -- I can splurge if need be, so price is not a big factor. Thanks.

I love, love love Locanda Verde!

We're celebrating my wife's birthday at Central next week and I plan on bringing a nice bottle of Champagne and paying the corkage fee. Do you think I can take the bottle over ahead of time (that day, day before) and ask them to chill it to the proper temperature before our reservation, or would that be inappropriate? I'd prefer not to have to take it to work and put it in the office fridge (it's a surprise for my wife).

I applaud your thinking ahead (and keeping a secret)! I see no reason why Central couldn't accomodate your simple request.

How important is presentation, really? I want my food to look appetizing on the plate, of course, but I don't need curlicues and squiggles of sauce that you can't taste and a pyramid of vegetables topped with a potato lattice, etc. I just really care that it tastes good. If you're not competing on Iron Chef America or Top Chef, why must you go to such lengths to "decorate" the plates (and of course charge so much extra for it!)?

But aren't attractive arrangements among the reasons why we go out to eat?  Isn't it fun to see how innovative a chef can be with a garnish or a side of vegetables? 

 

I'm not advocating the torture of  ingredients, but when I dine out, I tend to want to see something that I can't, or won't, make at home.

 

Chatters? Opinions?

Tom, Thank you so much for your suggestion a couple of months ago to have my 40th birthday brunch at Birch and Barley! We took your suggestion, and it was a great success. The food was delicious and they were extremely nice and accomodating. They provided a cake from their Buzz Bakery and let me pick the flavor (best coconut cake ever), gave us two great tables, and even let my friends split the bill between their eleven (!) credit cards. Thanks for the great idea - it was a perfect celebration.

Thanks for the feedback.

 

(ELEVEN credit cards? Bless your servers.)

Do we have anywhere in DC that can compete with New York for sheer good food, chic factor and coolness? I have guests coming in early December and want to wow them - if I can!

I think Kushi on lower K St., Sei in Penn Quarter, Birch & Barley in Logan Circle, Againn downtown and the new Michel in Tysons Corner (worth the drive, by the way) can compete with New York's "cool" factor.

well, Tom, know this isn't what you want to hear but i'm boycotting all DC restaurants as service has gotten so bad, last straw was when went to complain to manager and she wasn't even there, so much for Morton's and so much for DC dining, it's the worst.

I'd like to be able to help you, or address your concerns, but I need more details, chatter.

 

There's plenty of good service around the area, by the way. Eventide's comes to mind. As do Lyon Hall's, Bond 45's, Kushi's, Capital Grille's (in Chevy Chase), Estadio's, Girasole's ... 

Do you ever worry that the heat level of dishes at a place like Super Bowl get toned down when they're ordered by a white guy? If that happens, is there any way around it?

 Interesting question regarding the subject of my First Bite column today. 

 

I only tend to worry when I spot "secret" menus or notice food on tables that wasn't offered to me. I try to get around those potential problems by letting servers know I want, say, a dish to be prepared as hot as *they* would typically eat it, or by having someone familiar with the language used in the restaurant (Mandarin, Korean, Thai, whatever) order for my party.

 

Super Bowl Noodle House was pretty busy the day I dropped by. I don't think the cashier noted my "whiteness" on my order.

Hey Tom - quick question. College student at GW, looking to take date on an inexpensive but nice date. Italian, American, modern cuisine. Suggestions?

 I'm a big fan of the signature chicken and stylish interiors at Nando's Peri-Peri, with locations in Penn Quarter and Dupont Circle. I'm also eager to return to Las Canteras, the charming Peruvian outpost in Adams Morgan. Cafe Divan in Georgetown is nice for Turkish and what about the smart DC Noodles on U St?

Chefs Pasten and Ruta have long been fixtures here in DC and continue to offer delicious and novel food from their kitchens. They are both spotlight worthy, IMHO.

Indeed they are.  I appreciate the suggestions.

 

These hosts don't have to be big names or chefs, by the way.  There are lots of people in the industry doing other than cooking, after all.

my fiance and I use "sir" as our pet name for each other, as well as for our dogs. is that weird?

If it makes you happy, who cares?

Tom, Our little group of friends has 3 birthdays within 1 week of each other in January so we been going out as a group around that time to celebrate. two couples are foodies but two aren't so that has made finding a place somewhat difficult. The first year, we went to Rasika, which the foodies enjoyed but no one else did and then last year we went to Cava, which was underwhelming for all. Can you recommend a good place for this go-round?

My snarky side wants to tell your non-food-loving friends to join you for drinks after dinner, but that's clearly not an option.  Can you give me some perimeters, please?

When I went to Columbia Room, I think we were there for closer to two hours. Of course, that included a lot of chatting (amongst ourselves and with the staff), so it seems like they're probably really good at reading your party. If you want to make it a longer experience, you can.

Correct. The staff is excellent at "reading" the situation. So you can make CR quick (or relatively so) or slow.

It'd be interesting if you got a manager or head waiter from a restaurant where you've experienced good service to guest host a chat. I'd like to see their answers to the different dining etiquette questions that come up.

Paging Dave Pressley! Paging Dave Pressley!

Tom, I really, really do not get the fuss about Againn. The seating area is loud. The bar is oh-so crowded at happy hour. The food is distinctly average and over-priced. It bears little resemblance to any food I've ever had at a British/Irish pub/restaurant. And I have found the staff to be no more than above average in their attention; and, at times at the bar, downright ineffective and slow. What on earth am I missing?

Well, when I've been in, I've been charmed by the design  and the cooking, both of which mirrored what I found in the better gastropubs I explored in London this summer.

 

But things change. I'll go back, and revise as necessary.

No, Tom, presentation is NOT one of the reasons I go out to eat. I want good food reasonably priced perhaps with some ingenious touches but not outre. This is why I like the Great American Restaurants. I don't want a mousse of duck liver or anything like that. A nice filet with a good Bernaise, parmesan potatoes, a chopped salad, maybe sharing the deviled eggs, and the banana pudding or white chocolate cherry bread pudding & I'm a happy camper. You can have the unique dishes; I'll take a twist (e.g. parmesan potatoes), but that's it.

Well, as I thought I said, food should look like itself. I'm not a fan of over-arranged, highly-manipulated food.

I'll take the duck liver mousse that the previous poster doesn't want.

My thought too!

Back in the late '70s, I was a young female waiter at The Tombs in Georgetown. I was really slammed one night and didn't have time to really look at my customers closely. Finally, things slowed down a little, and I went over to a table for two to check on them. As I started to say to one of them, "Would you like anything else, sir?" I finally looked at him and realized I wasn't sure if he was a him or a her. He kind of looked like Bea Arthur. It was all very confusing: the mannish gray hair, the feminine-looking hands, the clothing of indeterminate sex. To my horror, I actually said, "Would you like anything else, sir ... uh, ma'am ... uh, sir ... uh ...." I turned red and ran. I still to this day don't know if it was a guy or a woman. It's still one of my most embarrassing waiter experiences ever.

I just laughed so hard my stomach hurts!

Hi Tom, what a neat idea. I would love to hear from Frank Ruta. I have been enjoying his cooking at Palena for 7 years now, and I know he is reserved, so this may be a long shot.

Well, he FINALLY agreed to let us interview him recently, so maybe the chef is coming out of his shell.  Another great idea, inviting Mr. Ruta on.

Oh, Guru of all things restaurant, can you help? Where would you take a group of 10-15 execs for dinner, someplace nice but not stuffy, in the $-$$ range? Needs to be a short cab ride from Mass Ave/Embassy Row. Thank you, and thanks for all you do!

I'm thinking Mourayo for Greek in its cozy taverna, Al Tiramisu for Italian in snug environs,  maybe Siroc for Mediterranean?

Hi, Tom - I recently learned that CityZen will not be open on Christmas Eve. This is a real bummer for me because my family and I have been going there that night for the past several years. It was great for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike (and we have a number of both!) to be able to have such a special experience at the holiday. Oh, well, moving on . . . can you recommend a good substitute? I made reservations at Citronelle, but I'm not sure it will be quite as lovely for the vegetarians. Thanks!

I haven't had occasion to see their Christmas Eve menus, but I notice that the very good Oval Room, Vidalia, Corduroy, West End Bistro, Bourbon Steak and Poste all have seats available for Dec. 24 service.  Wouldn't hurt to find out what their choices will be (if, in fact, they've decided what's for dinner).

We were in Cairns this summer and dined several times (breakfast and dinner) at the Blue Moon Grill in Trinity Beach, just north of Cairns. Phone +61 7 4057 8957 ‎ bluemoongrill.com.au Food was great and the staff had an engaging sense of humor. We loved it.

Good to know. (This is in response to last week's poster searching for good eats Down Under. )

Hi Tom - I'm looking to host a small birthday dinner of 8 people for an aging parent, and we're hoping to find someplace in DC with a small private room so we can all hear each other. It seems that Bistro Lepic, 701, Central and Tosca may have rooms around the right size, any other thoughts for us? Price and type of food aren't important, we like everything - we just want a lovely meal where we can all have a conversation. Thanks!

Those are all fine choices (though I'm unaware of a private room on the main floor of Lepic, which is crowded and noisy but also delicious. There's a wine bar upstairs, however, which would be suitable).

 

Other possibilities for your group: Oval Room, Corduroy, Equinox and Vidalia.

Tom, we're going to a performance at the Studio Theatre this Friday. Where would you recommend we try for dinner in the area? We've dined at Birch and Barley (and loved it) for past performances, so where else should we try this time? Thanks for your sage advice!

Estadio would be my first choice, but the new Spanish restaurant takes (most) reservations only until 6 p.m.  Nearby, there are also Bar Pilar and Masa 14 to consider.

Hi Tom, Jaleo v. Estadio? For two mid-twenties ladies, Friday night, looking for good drinks and good food somewhere fun. Ideally we could linger and chat with wine. Thanks!

I'm a fan of both, but right now, Estadio in Logan Circle is hot, hot, hot.  Great cocktails, fun people-watching (and be sure to fit in the excellent tortilla Espanola).

Hi Tom, I walk past II Mullino's restaurant on Vermont Avenue every evening on my way home to Logan Circle. A few weeks ago, I noticed that the restaurant's space had been vacated. What happened to Mullino's? Why did it go out of business? Will the new restaurant, - Lincoln's - fare any better than Mullino's when it opens on February 12, 2011 (Lincoln's birthday)?

The heavily-staffed and expensive Il Mulino was the wrong restaurant at a sour time in the economy. A city our size can only support so many luxury venues, and the cooking at Il Mulino was never good enough to warrant its lofty tabs.

 

In contrast, the future Lincoln is a totally different concept. It's theme, in a word, is  "comfort."

I have been an avid fan of yours for years, fell off the wagon of your discussions since having our second baby. Now that the sleep has returned to our life, we are having a night OUT! Please revive us and give me a hint on a romantic spot in the late evening for some small bites, drinks, and maybe music? We'd like to stay close to home in Old Town. Thanks in advance! How I've missed you so!

Aha! I always SUSPECTED two fewer eyes out there in the peanut gallery!

 

Seriously, welcome back.

 

For bites and drinks, I'm partial to the bars at Restaurant Eve and Vermilion in Old Town and Eventide in nearby Arlington.  

 

What am I missing, gang?

Just wondering if you got any feedback from the folks at Mussel Bar over your review. Don't know if I've ever seen such a bad review in a high profile place...can't say I agreed with all of it, but it was certainly a good read!

I haven't heard from the owners of Mussel Bar themselves, but they did tweet about the review and I *think* I've heard from their backers.

 

What was your experience there?

geography: DC/Arlington price: not extravagant setting: good for groups (circular tables much preferred to rectangles) menu: experimental with some more accessible fare Thanks!

What about Liberty Tavern (dig those cocktails!), Lebanese Taverna (food everyone can relate to) or Ray's the Steaks (as much for the wine as the protein)?

To the poster who likes Great Americans BECAUSE you don't care about presentation: What? I think their presentation is superb! Why is that your example? Perhaps you're confused and think only the over-the-top contests on TV count as "presentation?" That's not the case.

Ah, good point, and I should have caught that. "Simple" can be just as wonderful as "sophisticated" in my book. 

I was mistaken for clergy once when I wore a white turtleneck and black sweater. My dining companion was also wearing black. I didn't correct the waiter who called me "Father".

And on that note, I bid you all a delicious Thanksgiving.

 

Come back December 1 at 11 a.m. for my chat with Roberto Donna.  Ciao for now!

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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